The elephant in the corner of the education system

Checking through Twitter earlier I noticed the wave of indignation that normally indicates a TV appearance by English Education Secretary Michael Gove, and lo and behold he had been holding forth on the Andrew Marr show on various topics, including the forthcoming teachers strike. But it wasn’t that that got me thinking, so much as the other announcement that he was to abolish modularised examinations at GCSE in England (and by extension in Wales). Now, regardless of your personal views on the matter, two things struck me about this.
1. On what evidence is he basising this change? What consultation has taken place to ensure this really is the best thing for our learners.
2. 2. There is a huge elephant in the room.

It is this second idea that I’d like to expand on in this post. But first, a little audience participation…

What, in your view, is the purpose of education?

To clarify, i don’t mean a hypothetical, idealised, blue skies perfect system, I mean the one we have. The schools and colleges, the classrooms and the homeworks. What’s it all for?

(I can give you a minute if it helps…)


So, what did you come up with? Well, if you’re anything like the people who’ve got involved in the purpos/ed discussions that have been going on in recent months, it would probably either have been something about the need to develop the individual or the need to help develop people into useful members of society, or somewhere between the two.

And while that’s all fine and dandy, and I’d probably agree with you, I worry that in all these high ideals we’re missing the identity crisis that is currently (I believe) at the heart of much of the fairly nasty disagreements about what we should be doing with our school system. I have reached the conclusion that there are two (if not mutually exclusive then certainly contradictory) directions in which the education system is being pulled.

1. The ‘academic’ system.

If, as Ken Robinson suggests, the school system developed as a protracted form of university entrance exam, then in stands to reason that one of the outcomes you want from the education system is the clear division of the pupils into groups. Pass or Fail. A* or D. Wheat or Chaff. In previous generations of course that division would have included ‘Grammar or Secondary Modern’, and when that has largely disappeared, the ‘Comprehensive’ system still fed into an exams system designed to divide people up.
When it became clear that the rest of the world didn’t really give a monkey’s about your grades, but what you could do, we sold the lie (to our students and ourselves) that that was of course what the exams system showed. Grades, we told the young people in our care, were an excellent short hand that employers would use to decide if you were up to the job they were looking to fill. The regular complaints from employers organisations that they did nothing of the thing were always somehow swallowed up in another round of reforms, or an attempt to fit something as open ended (some would say vacuous) as ‘skills’ into this broken model of measuring achievement.

2. The competency system

Meanwhile, and hidden in plain sight, was a second system. As a society we have agreed that being able to drive is a good thing, but that it would be better all round for everyone if you could prove you were safe at it. Therefore, to the pass and fail model was added a third element. The resit. This meant that if you didn’t get it right first time you could go away and have a bit more practice and have another go later on. And I did. Four times. (Almost as many as Michael Gove, apparently)

In recent years the resits culture has entered the school exams system through the modularisation of the GCSE qualifications, and it is this that Mr Gove is currently trying to remove.

Now, while I’m happy to accept there is much wrong with the current modular system (and indeed the driving test system), it seems to me to be a step in completely the wrong direction, back towards the academic system which fails to meet the needs of employers, fails to provide an effective snapshot of a persons ability and potential, fails to match our growing awareness of the multifaceted nature of intelligence itself and most damaging of all, fails thousands of potentially brilliant and useful members of society by labelling them as failures when actually it means they’re just not very good at academic exams.

We need to be loud and clear that this is not the kind of education system that we want. We need to speak calming, clearly, and back up our ideas with evidence. We need to resist the temptation to demonise those who take the alternative view, or accuse them of stupidity, however much they seem to invite those accusations. But most of all we need to get this identity crisis that is at the heart of the education system out in the open and have the debate.

What can I do?

Leave a comment below or on twitter
Tweet a lnk to this post
Write to Mr Gove explaining your concerns (if you have any)
Write to your MP urging them to raise this issue in Parlaiment
Get involved in purpos/ed and help shape the future of this debate.

Dave Stacey

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